I love the quaint little comma. It is the quiet achiever of the punctuation family. It is not as conclusive as the full stop; nor as arrogant as the semi-colon. It can create a pause in a sentence, allowing the reader time to gather their thoughts, while also allowing a long sentence to be made slightly more readable. Just like the colon it can: be used to list objects in a sentence, create an aside within a sentence, and, in my humble view, cannot be overused, overlooked, or overly praised.
I appreciate that not all readers love the comma in the same way that I do. My wonderful wife, when bravely editing my first book, was full of praise and support for it but did have to write on the cover of the manuscript: ‘So many commas’. It was a fair comma-ent.
I have a feeling, though, that no matter how strongly you or my wife dislikes the noble comma, no-one dislikes it as much as a certain dairy company in the State of Maine in the United States. The comma – or more accurately the lack of one – ended up costing them five million dollars. One missing comma. Five million dollars. The comma may look humble but when it comes to the law it is incredibly constructive, important, and powerful.
As omnipotent as it is, how did one comma cost a cow company five million dollars? Let me show you, comma-rade.
The employment laws of Maine (the easternmost State in the continental United States and the place in which the town of Storybrooke, from the horribly wonderful television show One Upon a Time, is to be found) described the circumstances in which a company operating in that State would have pay its employees for overtime work. That law required all Maine companies to pay their employees at time-and-a-half rates for each hour they worked after 40 hours. However, the law also said that certain employees were exempt from overtime pay including those involved in the business of:
“…the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
I am giddy from happiness the number of commas in this piece of law. But sadly, this law did mean that four employees involved in the distribution side of the operations of a Maine-based dairy company did not get paid any overtime, no matter how many extra hours they worked. These four employees were, according to the company at least, involved in the distribution of agricultural produce and perishable foods and therefore fell clearly into the class of employees who were not entitled to overtime pay according to Maine law.
Clearly, the boss at this dairy company must have had a certain song by Vampire Weekend on repeat in the office because those four employees took a very different interpretation of the law. One that most definitely did care about a comma. And a very special type of comma at that. Yes, you guessed it: the Oxford comma.
The employees (or rather, their grammatically pedantic but legally correct lawyers) took the dairy company to court, claiming years of unpaid overtime totalling five million dollars. The employees’ argument was that they did not pack agricultural goods or perishable foods for shipment or distribution. Rather, they just distributed such goods. And without a comma after the word ‘shipment’ in the wording of the law, the law excluding certain employees from overtime could only apply to those employees whose job it was to ‘pack’ dairy goods for shipment or distribution. If the law was meant to exclude those employees who distributed such goods, the employees argued, it should have been written so as to say: ‘packed for shipment [OXFORD COMMA] or distribution’ and not as ‘packed for shipment [NO OXFORD COMMA] or distribution. Did I show the difference clearly enough? One little comma after the word ‘shipment’ and before the word ‘or’ was the central argument in this case. Glorious stuff this.
The matter went through several levels of courts until, eventually, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found in favour of the employees. The judge held that the absence of the oxford comma from this law meant that the exclusion from overtime pay in the State of Maine did not apply to employees that distributed goods, but that it did apply to those who packed goods for shipment or distribution.
The end result was that the employees received their backpay, the Oxford comma ruled supreme, and we all finally have an answer to the question posed by Vampire Weekend: the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, a dairy company in Maine, and four of their employees in the area of distribution most certainly give a… err.. fuss about the Oxford comma.
I accept that the comma can be overused. I recognise that punctuation and in particular the Oxford comma is something only self-absorbed and petulant self-published authors such as my good self care about (let alone write 906 words on). And I completely agree that I use too many commas, but I love them so. All I ask is that next time you consider whether to use an Oxford comma or not, just think back to that dairy company in Maine and what a single missing comma cost it. Please feel free to leave your